Sunday, March 02, 2008

Feb. Story of the Month: How She Got That Story

Jessica Chou, the UCLA Daily Bruin photographer who produced The Underground Students, a package of stories, photos and audio slide shows on undocumented students, shared how she got the story in an e-mail interview this week. The package was named February Story of the Month. Chou is a fourth-year history major.

What inspired you to write the series?

What inspired me to start this series and what inspired me to continue it were two different things. I initially found out about the issue when I was shooting the mock graduation protest IDEAS (a support group for undocumented students) held on campus for the Daily Bruin -- and to be honest, I didn't quite know what was going on. But there were certain things that they said in their testimonials that kind of stuck with me -- and in terms of financial struggles, it was something I was able to relate to. So I started paying attention. And I think I always knew that the overall, general immigration debate never quite made sense to me, I just didn't know why. In retrospect, I think the two came together really well -- here was something I can personally relate to, perhaps now the immigration debate can start making some sense.

But being a photographer, and wanting a great photo essay for my portfolio, I started contacting the only name I remembered from the top of my head, Ernesto Rocha (one of the students I covered in my profiles). I had the whole photo essay imagined in my head, and I was going to do it in a week. It was totally shallow. I finally got a response from him a few weeks later, and he told me about a hearing (for the D.R.E.A.M. Act), a radio show, and some rallies he was going to be a part of, and invited me to come along.

I remember when I was at the hearing on May 19th (2007), I was thinking "whoa...okay, there is something going on here...this is REALLY something..." I felt pretty foolish thinking about trying to get my story in a week -- then I really would've been one of those reporters who just wanted a story but missed the whole point.

But what inspired me to continue the story in the way that I did was this issue in itself. Looking at this as an outsider, embarrassingly enough, I was pretty shocked at how these students are “just like us!” Their individual stories and their collective efforts are incredibly humbling, and it only made me realize what our immigration policies are doing to REAL people, and how much of that isn’t reflected in our current immigration debate. It’s easy to talk about solutions in legal and economic terms, but it’s precisely this human value aspect that has made it really hard. It’s an incredibly multi-dimensional issue, and I think I just really wanted to address that part of it, or if it’s already understood, then I want to make sure it’s not forgotten within any discussion of the issue.

Tell us about how you found your sources and got them to open up to you.

I briefly mentioned how I came upon my sources, and it was really through my introduction with Ernesto…and it just started from there. I met more and more students from a lot the political activities that were going on for the D.R.E.A.M. Act. In terms of them opening up to me, it was easy. They were the ones who were talking about the issue. All I had to do was pay attention. I think they saw that, so they were willing to talk more. But if they weren’t already speaking up, I highly doubt there would’ve been a story for me to pursue. It probably helped that I was in some sort of position to make that recognition a bit more public than to just my immediate friends.

What were some of the difficulties you faced in reporting the story?

I think I was just really concerned with making sure that I wouldn’t be victimizing these students. The stories shared can be so overwhelming sometimes that it can be hard to look past the difficulties they are facing, but the point is that they were doing something about. When you’re reporting about a community of people, you’re not only presenting them to the public, you’re representing them as well, whether you like it or not. I wanted to make sure the story would present and represent them in the most honest light possible, victimizing them wouldn’t have done that.

You shot photos and wrote the stories. Talk about the challenges of doing both.

I think with photos, you’re able to make decisions after you shoot and look at how your story will materialize -- you see the story as you go along. In writing, at least to me, you kind of have to have that ready in your head: observed, digested and ready to explain…totally not me. That was a pretty weird twist trying to do both, but the decision for me to write the stories didn’t come until the end.

It only took me a week to write the stories (in comparison to photographing and interviewing the students for almost a year), but it felt painfully slow. It was also my first time writing, so I was pretty nervous-- thank goodness for my uber-talented editor, Robert Faturechi, who actually wrote the investigative piece on the preferential treatment at UCLA’s orthodontics program which I believed was featured as story of the month on your blog. I think he would be the common denominator for successful stories.

In terms of photographing and interviewing the students during the year…the challenges were really about judgment calls. Do you put your camera down now? Is it appropriate for me to follow this person here? Should I give this person some space before I approach him/her again? You just feel for it as you go I guess. But hands down, I still I like photographing better.

Anything else you'd like to say?

I guess I just want to say that I’m really glad that the story received the attention that it did, and that people are not looking at this issue lightly. There are many other students facing similar challenges, and these were just particular situations of a collective struggle. All the students who I have talked to, but weren’t profiled, helped me immensely in understanding this.

I also don’t think I could’ve have finished this if it weren’t for Robert, my editor, and Alene Tchekmedyian, the online assistance editor -- who stayed up for two days straight helping me produce the audio slideshows. They definitely grounded me in making sure I knew what I wanted out of the package, and it was way more than a one man effort that these stories came out.

Has your newspaper produced a great series, story, photo story, multimedia or interactive graphic you want to share with others. Submit it for Story of the Month consideration by e-mailing it to Keep in mind this is not a contest; it's simply a way to highlight examples of innovative, investigative and in-depth student journalism.

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